My interest in the relationship between a person and his or her clothing goes back to my early days in graduate school. I was taking a course on human personality, under the tutelage of an insightful woman, Dr. Mary Henle.
I remember the morning I shared my proposed master’s degree thesis topic with her. I thought that one of the ways to assess personality was to take note of the kind of clothing that a person wore. I further postulated that not only does a person’s clothing tell us a lot about him or her, it helps make us who we are.
Dr. Henle tactfully deflated my ego that morning. She said, “You give too much credit to the saying, ‘Clothes make the man.’ It is really only a wisecrack attributed to Mark Twain. There is nothing more to it than that.”
I subsequently chose another topic for my thesis.
Many years have passed since that encounter. During those years, I have learned that she was mistaken on many grounds. For one thing, the saying, “Clothes make the man,” did not originate with Mark Twain. Centuries before the American humorist, the 16th-century Catholic theologian Desiderius Erasmus wrote: “Vestis virum facit,” which translates as “Clothes make the man.”
Truth to tell, statements about the relationship between a person and his clothing go back to the Bible, and a passage in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, is a case in point. We read:
“You shall bring forward your brother, Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests … Make sacral vestments for your brother Aaron, for dignity and adornment. Next you shall instruct all who are wise of heart … to make Aaron’s vestments, for consecrating him to serve Me as priest.”
Maimonides, codifying the concepts from the biblical text, writes: “A High Priest who serves in the Temple with less than his eight vestments, or an ordinary priest who serves with less than his four required vestments … invalidates the service performed and is subject to punishment by death at the hands of Heaven, as if he were an alien who served in the Temple….” (Hilchot Klei HaMikdash, 10:4).
We are left with the clear impression that these vestments are external manifestations of the royalty and majesty of the priestly role. Without the clothing, each priest is “ordinary.” With the clothing, he is not only bedecked with “dignity and adornment,” but has become a prince.
Others agree that garments influence the wearer in some fashion. For example, Rashi, commenting on the verse, “Put these on your brother Aaron, and on his sons as well; anoint them, and fill their hands” (Exodus 28:41), points out that in the Old French language with which he was familiar, when a person received a new official position the nobleman would put gloves upon him. Rashi uses the Old French word “gant,” which the reference books that I consulted translate as a “decorative glove.” This would indicate that the garments were a type of official uniform, symbolic of a specialized responsibility.
The late 15th-century commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama, in his classic Akedat Yitzchak, provides even stronger support for our contention that clothes make the man. He identifies a similarity between the Hebrew word for the Kohen’s uniform and the Hebrew word for ethical character. The Hebrew word for uniform is “mad,” plural “madim,” and the Hebrew word for a character trait is “midah” (“midot”).
Finally, there is a biblical verse that demonstrates the central role of clothing in “making the man.” And here we go back even further in history than this week’s parsha. We go all the way back to the first parsha in the Torah, Bereshit: “And the Lord God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them” (3:21).
God made clothing for man. And clothing makes the man.
Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.